Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read the series so far.
Despite the tendency of some dispensationalist scholars to interpret the Kingdom Parables negatively, so that they view the movement from hundredfold to sixty to thirty in Matt 13:8 as marking “the course of the age,” and in Matt 13:31-33 “the mustard seed refers to the perversion of God’s purpose in this age, while the leaven refers to the corruption of the divine agency” (J. D. Pentecost), Christ presents these parables as signifying “the kingdom of heaven” which He came to establish and which in other parables he presents as a treasure.
It has to said that the composers of these 95 Theses have not proven themselves shining examples in rightly representing the opinions of dispensationalists. A quick perusal of several authors (e.g. Pentecost, Things To Come and the commentaries on Matthew by Toussaint and by Glasscock) revealed they believed nothing of the sort about Matthew 13:8, unless, of course, it is the standard view that the four soils represent four kinds of receptors (hearts) and their attitudes to the Word. Those whose hearts receive the Word grow in understanding (Toussaint). Is this objectionable?
On the “Mustard Seed,” Ed Glasscock wisely states, “Trying to identify the birds is useless speculation, and to build doctrine from such obscure analogy is dangerous” (292). He may well be right. Pentecost’s negative view is based upon the way the Lord used “birds” in the previous parable (13:4, 19) so it cannot be brushed aside simply because it is “negative.” Perhaps Pentecost’s interpretation is wrong? Some dispensationalists disagree with it (e.g. Toussaint and Glasscock). Christian interpreters get it wrong sometimes. What one must ask is whether they provide any decent textual and theological arguments for their view. At any rate, one would not expect to be at the pointed end of a “thesis” just because certain brethren didn’t like your “negative” explanation.
With respect to the “leaven” in Matthew 13:33, before complaining about the negativity of dispensationalists, it would be salutary for these objectors to at least think seriously about three things. First, they might think about the fact that “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 13 is depicted by Jesus as containing evil (13:19, 36-42). Second, “leaven” definitely has its share of negative connotations in the OT (Exod. 12:15, 19; Lev. 2:11, 6:17; Deut. 16:4; Amos 4:4-5), and these continue unabated into the NT (Matt. 16:6, 1 Cor. 5:6-7, Gal. 5:9). Only here are we supposed to put a positive spin on it. But why? Doesn’t a “negative” interpretation make sense? Granted, it doesn’t do much to support the postmillennialism of many on the Nicene Council. Nor does it help those who hate dispensationalism. But surely the burden of proof is on those who do not believe “leaven” in Matthew 13:33 is to be interpreted negatively!
In the third place, it is usual to ask “how would the first hearers have understood it?” Well, they were God-fearing Jews. How do you think they would have viewed the reference to leaven?
Somebody is reading “the gospel” into a context where it does not belong. The Parable of the Leaven (which. remember, is “hidden” in the bread) illustrates the negative aspects of the Kingdom (13:4-7,19-22, 28-29, 48) prior to the Second Coming (Matt. 13:39-43, 49-50). The sanguine interpretation of the kingdom as always containing nothing but good, which seems to be at the heart of this thesis, is based, we have to say it, on a slovenly exegesis of the chapter. If the dispensational interpretations are wrong they must be demonstrated to be such. I have not yet come across a convincing counter to this view in any non-dispensational exegesis of these passages.
Despite dispensationalism’s historic argument for cultural withdrawal by claiming that we should not “polish brass on a sinking ship” (J. V. McGee) and that “God sent us to be fishers of men, not to clean up the fish bowl” (Hal Lindsey), the New Testament calls Christians to full cultural engagement in “exposing the works of darkness” (Eph 5:11) and bringing “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5).
The rhetorical flourishes of McGee and Lindsey are just that. The fact is that many dispensationalists have been notable for their engagement of the culture, especially through inner-city missions, etc. Some ministries seek to equip young believers in worldview analysis (notably David Noebel’s “Summit Ministries”). John MacArthur and others have spoken out on many cultural issues.
But the gist of the complaint is that Christians are called to “full cultural engagement.” Presumably dispensationalists are guilty of ignoring Ephesians 5:11 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 more than their Reformed counterparts? Perhaps we should all drop what we’re doing and start counting noses? Like the Sheep and the Goats, we could have dispensationalists on the right hand and the non-dispensationalists on the left (or just the reverse if the Nicene Council are doing the counting!).
In all seriousness it can hardly be a litmus test of the scriptural pedigree of a system whether more or less of its adherents are engaging culture. For one thing, there would have to be agreement on what that phrase means. And anyway, the verses cited do not tell us any more than to engage the world as good witnesses to our profession (Eph. 5:11), with a fully thought-out Christian worldview (2 Cor. 5:10). That most Christians, of whatever persuasion, fail dismally in the former and are clueless about the latter hardly makes these verses suitable goads for one set of believers to use against another. Paul wrote them so that we would all become less world-like and more Christ-like, whether we engage culture or not.
Despite dispensationalism’s practical attempts to oppose social and moral evils, by its very nature it cannot develop a long-term view of social engagement nor articulate a coherent worldview because it removes God’s law from consideration which speaks to political and cultural issues.
Most dispensationalists would say that the Law (meaning here the Ten Commandments) is not a rule of life that the Christian is under. The Church is not a theocratic government. I have already briefly commented on the relation between the Law and the Christian under Thesis 18. Some pertinent material from a response to a recent interlocutor on this subject follows:
For example, how do we know that stealing or adultery is wrong? Simple, we go to Scripture (Exod. 20:14-15 in the OT; Rom. 13:9 in the NT). Why is it wrong? I answer, because these commandments reflect God’s own character (e.g., He is truthful, just, faithful, etc.), and as such they possess normative moral authority over a Christian. Thus, if one is to be “conformed to the image of Christ” he will be conformed more and more to the Decalogue. This is important to notice since the Law cannot regulate behavior as a “rule of faith.” This is why I stress the internal function of the Law (love) and not the external function. Thus understood, “the law is a spiritual guide.”
The Law as an external standard has absolutely no authority over the Christian (e.g. Gal. 2:16, 19; 3:1-3, 11-12).
Have you noticed how Paul employs the Commandments (though not the Sabbath) in his Epistles? Look, for instance, at Ephesians 6:1-3. See how the Apostle uses the Sixth Commandment to reinforce the normative force of his injunction for children to obey their parents. Again, in Romans 13:8-10 can one see how Paul enjoins Christian love by referring to the Law! This is because the Ten Commandments (well, nine of them) are Divine disclosures of ethical norms based on the attributes of God.
We do not need to believe the Law is a rule of life for the Christian to engage in politics and dialog with the culture. We have the Triune God and His perfections, plus the commands of the NT to instruct us. However, I do not wish to evade the charge of the lack of a dispensationalist worldview, (off-target as this particular one is). Indeed, I wish to redirect the charge and hop on to my soapbox with it upon my lips.
The sad fact is that most dispensationalists (the vast majority) are guilty of not developing a dispensationalist worldview. In fact most would say that they don’t need to because dispensationalism is not a full-orbed system of theology. It just corrects Reformed theology at points in ecclesiology and (especially) eschatology. Dispensationalists are usually content to hang on to the apron-strings of Reformed theologians in every area save these two. This is why one often finds no fresh thinking by dispensationalists in areas like apologetics, worldview, or ethics. And except for those few who have embraced the thinking of Cornelius Van Til, there is a dogged reliance upon natural theology which pervades the works of dispensationalist’s writing on these subjects. Not until dispensationalists stop seeing their theology in this myopic way will things change.
But having said all that, I do not believe the problem is with dispensational theology, but with those who believe it who are guilty of not developing it on its own principles in every area.
Despite the dispensationalists’ charge that every non-dispensational system “lends itself to liberalism with only minor adjustments” (John Walvoord), it is dispensationalism itself which was considered modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The best I can come up with is “Eh??” For those who earlier wished to enlighten us about the researches of the later Wittgenstein (Thesis 35) it is disappointing to see them glide so effortlessly into the fallacy of equivocation. Perhaps the combined Doctors on the Nicene Council can produce one example of a true dispensationalist who was a theological liberal cum modernist. Over to them.